GRABILL, Ind. (WANE) – Within hours of firefighters leaving the scene of a huge sawmill fire, workers started cleaning up the rubble. Small fires still popped up as the debris was moved.
“You’re taking something that’s enclosed and exposing oxygen to it and getting it to the point that it rekindles,” David Ringer, the chief of St. Joseph Township Fire and Rescue, said.
A fire truck stayed at the sawmill just to make sure nothing got out-of-hand.
Firefighters were first notified of the fire by a neighbor around 1:15 Wednesday morning at Cedar Creek Sawmill. The mill is located at the corner of Page Road and Springfield Center Road. The mill manufactures wood pallets.
The massive fire destroyed a building and the trailer of a semi. The Amish-owned sawmill’s been in operation since 1987, owner Ben Graber said. Graber didn’t know a dollar figure for the losses yet, but said they do plan to rebuild. Another part of the sawmill, which firefighters saved from burning, was able to still do business Wednesday.
Less than two hours after firefighters cleared the scene, dozens of Graber’s family and friends were working to clear away the rubble.
“The Amish were actually helping pull hose last night. I saw an Amish gentleman [manning] a hose at one time. They come in numbers,” Ringer said. “They fixed food for us. They baked. They had another operation going on to feed the firefighters up at the house. So, it’s not surprising to see this kind of activity so close to us clearing the scene.”
When crews arrived, one building was already fully engulfed in flames. Winds and flammable materials in and around the building quickly fueled the flames.
Heavy smoke and towering flames at least fifty feet in the air could be seen for miles around.
Ringer said sub-zero temperatures hampered efforts to make a significant impact on the fire.
“We’ve had an issue with valves freezing,” Ringer said. “We’re having trouble getting our tankers refilled to get water back to the scene.”
Every fire department in Allen County was called for tanker assistance around 3:30 a.m. Prior to that, departments from DeKalb and Whitley counties were called as were crews from Hicksville, Ohio and Payne, Ohio. The Air National Guard Fire Department also supplied a tanker.
“It’s great that we can call for an all-county response and we got something from every single department. Whether it be manpower, or a tanker or an engine,” Ringer said. “It goes to show you when you need something we’ll all pull together and we’ll provide that for each other.”
Fort Wayne fire stations were on standby to assist in other areas of the county where departments were thin with manpower and equipment.
Ringer said at least 80 firefighters from about 15 departments were called in at some point overnight.
“If it had been mid-July we might have had half that response. When we had tankers going down, we had to supplement them and we were in turn sending tankers to fire departments to thaw to come back to the scene while the others were freezing up and then going back to the fire department,” Ringer said. “It’s not that we had that many on the scene at one time. It’s just we had to keep that rotation through getting the tankers thawed at back to the scene.”
Diesel and propane tanks near the sawmill were a concern for crews. Ringer said efforts were made to protect them.
The sawmill is filled with wood pallets, plywood, and other equipment. A semi-trailer near the edge of the building was destroyed. Ringer said stacks of pallets 25 feet tall in the center of the mill is what kept the fire burning for so long.
While the main building was a total loss, firefighters focused on saving three other structures nearby.
“Our concern is the structures that don’t have fire but have fire going toward them or blowing toward them. The firefighters out here did a wonderful job saving three other structures. I’m very proud of the firefighters,” Ringer said.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
The St. Joe Township Rehab Bus is on scene to allow firefighters to rest and get warm. Ringer said two firefighters had minor injuries. One went to a hospital for a finger injury and another for a knee injury.